Is British American Tobacco killing more than just smokers?

BAT cigarettes aren’t killing more than its smokers, are they?

British American Tobacco (Nigeria) Ltd. is the multinational company responsible for your favorite cigarette brands; Benson and Hedges, Pall Mall, St. Moritz, Rothmans, Consulate and a few more.

It has operated in Nigeria since 1912 and has its three factories in Ibadan, Port Harcourt and Zaria. The company website touts its Ibadan factory as state-of-the-art with “first class Nigerian technicians and engineers” and products manufactured at that factory being of the highest international quality.

In an exhaustive interview with Premium Times, three former staff of British American Tobacco Ltd. recount their harrowing experiences at the company and they did not hide any details of the dangers the process of packaging tobacco for final consumption poses for factory workers.

The phrase “Tobacco smokers are liable to die young” recurred through our childhood but no one ever thought to mention that “Tobacco factory workers are even more liable to die miserable deaths” especially if they are subjected to the hazardous working conditions at British American Tobacco (Nigeria) Ltd., as revealed by these men.

According to Premium Times, the first of the three men, Folarin Shamsudeen worked at the company for 12 years until he was relieved of his job for “poor performance and health-related redundancy”. At age 35, Mr. Shamsudeen has been diagnosed with chronic sinutisis, chronic high blood pressure, and ingrown toenails, all medical conditions erstwhile foreign to him. He told journalists that sometime in 2006, he had a rolling sensation in his ear and after a “simple process of putting lukewarm water in a balloon and shooting at the affected ear, tobacco balls fell off the ear.

This was the beginning of many more health concerns that arose and could hardly be treated because the company cut off its scheme with the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan denying workers access to satisfactory health care services.

For Taofeek Alabi, a former manufacturing executive who had worked with the BAT for 9 years, he’s had to wear a cervical collar and a lumbar corset since he got “diagnosed with cervical spondylosis, a form of neck-pain caused by age-related ‘wear and tear’ to bones and tissues“. When he sought to be transferred to another department where he’d be less exposed to danger, he got a letter asking him sign as medically redundant and unfit to work.

Other staff told of how they work 12-hour shifts on their feet resulting to severe knee pain, of the use of human labour for tasks originally meant for machines and the deceitful act put up by the company when standard organisation inspectors come in for their seasonal inspection.

On the company’s website, they explain part of their cigarette manufacturing process thus: “Cigarette making, once done entirely by hand, is today almost fully automated, with the cut tobacco, cigarette paper and filters continuously fed into the cigarette-making machines“.

Mr. Shamsudeen’s explanation of the process is, however contrary. “In the conditioning department where I worked, we were to decase tobacco bales weighing 200 kilogrammes with our arms… It’s part of the procedure that we evaluate the tobacco bale very well. We are to smell it to perceive if it is mouldy, do some physical tests to see if it is infested with beetles, and if there is any foreign material, because sometimes in the farm they put slippers, stones, and all that…”

He added: “When it is coming out of the DCC, part of the procedure is that we have to do hand-feeling, to ensure that the tobacco is pliable and there is no paddy tobacco coming out. Paddy is the one that has not really absorbed water. So we’ll be doing hand-feeling to ensure the tobacco is well conditioned. In the process, some of us that are allergic to tobacco substance develop skin disease.”

These testaments are pointers to the fact that BAT has not only failed its staff, but has also failed on its promise of quality to cigarette smokers who buy and trust their products.

The company responded to the stories told by these former staff and the legal action that have been pursued by a few of them by first sending out a statement accusing these men of “ganging up with anti-tobacco NGOs“. One day later, it released another statement emphasizing the company’s stance on complying with standards and adherence to workplace safety.

These allegations are huge and life-threatening and the Ministry of Labour and Employment, trade unions and NGOs need to rise to the occasion to investigate the conditions of service in all BAT factories.

Cigarette smoking will kill us, but this cigarette production company might be cutting lives of helpless staff short. Is it time to pack up your company and leave?

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